Employees of the Tulsa City-County Library system have been ordered to sign forms stating they will not disclose “proprietary information” about the library, including marketing plans, business strategies, financial information and other records that could fall under the Oklahoma Open Records Act, The Frontier has learned.
One employee said the decision to require employees to sign the form was “mind boggling” for a public library system and that some employees do not want to sign it. The employee asked to remain anonymous out of concern that speaking out could jeopardize employment.
“We can’t think of any legitimate reason why the library, a public, collaborative institution, the primary goal of which is to make information accessible to all, would require such a secretive, binding pledge from its employees,” the employee told The Frontier.
The form was sent in an email to employees last week with the subject line “All Staff Must Sign Form.” It is titled “Proprietary Information and Works for Hire Acknowledgement.”
“I understand and acknowledge that the library is engaged in the continuous development, production and marketing of various designs and processes in connection with its business and that it is critical for the library to preserve and protect its Proprietary Information,” the form states.
It includes a long list of items and areas that are considered proprietary, many that fall under the Open Records Act.
The Tulsa City-County Library system is a government agency funded by property taxes. All library records fall under the state Open Records Act and are public unless a specific exemption in state or federal law allows them to be withheld.
Library CEO Gary Shaffer said the form would not impact the library system’s compliance with the Open Records Act.
“Anything that’s public record is public record,” he said.
Shaffer said the form was written by an attorney for the library, adding: “You know how attorneys write things broadly.”
He said such forms are common practice in the business world to ensure that intellectual property remains with the business and not taken by employees if they leave.
Shaffer has previous experience in the business world, according to his online biography, which identifies him as a “library administrator, Ph.d. candidate and marketer.” It states that before beginning his work in libraries, Shaffer spent a decade in the advertising industry advising Fortune 500 companies.
The library system is increasingly creating and using new innovations to serve citizens, he said. Shaffer gave examples including a children’s reading app purchased from another library system and a new website developed by the Tulsa City-County Library system with graphic art created by an employee.
When asked whether all of the library’s employees would be required to sign the form, Shaffer said: “I don’t know why that would be an issue for anyone. We are trying to shore up all of our business practices.”
The library system is overseen by an 11-member commission made up of appointees from the city and county.
County Commissioner John Smaligo, who serves on the commission, said he had not seen the form until he received it from The Frontier. He said before commenting on the issue, “it’s something I need to talk to Gary Shaffer about.”
“I am very confident here that there’s no intent to withhold public documents from the public,” Smaligo said.
Shaffer said he was not aware of other libraries that required employees to sign such forms, though he said the issue has been discussed on library web forums.
As for concerns expressed by employees, Shaffer said: “It disappoints me that anyone thinks this is an attempt to obfuscate anything.”
The non-disclosure form isn’t the first time employees have been asked to keep plans for the library confidential. Employees were also asked not to disclose the fact that the library had negotiated a deal with Starbucks for a coffee shop in the new downtown library, The Frontier has learned.
Several employees said library executives were concerned that if other libraries learned of the plan, the Tulsa City-County Library System would not be the first public library to have a Starbucks.
The library is in the midst of a $48 million overhaul of the Central library downtown, set to be complete next year.
Shaffer confirmed the plans for a Starbucks coffee shop in the new library.
“We shared that with employees over a year ago. We will be the first public library with a Starbucks. … We did ask them to keep that confidential,” he said.
Numerous univeristy system libraries have Starbucks coffee shops in their libraries. Last year, a column on Forbes.com urged public libraries to take a lesson from the popular coffee shops and their ability to create an inviting reading environment.
Records show that since 2010, the library system has maintained a cash reserve fund of between $26 million and $29 million. Because the library system has spent less than it brought in during all but one of those years, it has also banked additional money each year ranging from $650,000 to $1.3 million.
Revenues, which are primarily from the library system’s share of property taxes, have ranged between $26 million and $29 million since 2010.
The library currently has a cash reserve of about $23.4 million, with $14.5 million set aside for the downtown library project, according to the June minutes of the Library Commission. The remaining $9.5 million has been set aside for “system replacements and capital needs” as recommended by a study, the minutes state.